Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ladyhawke (1985)

To the tune of the Trogdor the Burninator song:



No grass-roofed cottages are immolated in Ladyhawke (Richard Donner, 1985) but it's still a damn good time.

Yeah, yeah, hawk looks like a lady.
Phillipe "The Mouse" Gaston (Matthew Broderick) escapes from the dungeons of Aquila only to be kidnapped and forced into indentured semi-squiredom by knight errant Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer). Navarre requires Phillipe's assistance on his kamikaze quest to break into Aquila and confront its resident bishop (John Wood). Turns out said Bishop had the erstwhile hots for Navarre's wife Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) and, when she spurned him, he made the de riguer deal with the devil. Now Isabeau is a hawk by day, and Navarre a wolf by night: eternally together, eternally apart. The curse can only be broken if the Bishop looks upon Isabeau and Navarre together, in their human forms: but since one or the other is always transmogrified, that's impossible. Right? Right?! (Spoiler: not impossible, but takes roughly the length of a feature-length film to accomplish).

Ladyhawke has all the ingredients of a fantasy classic, but it never quite gets cooking. It's all just swash swash buckle buckle, and the nuances of this story require a more subtle approach. Now and again, we get hints of the kind of melancholy poetry that would have elevated Ladyhawke out of the sword-and-sorcery slums -- an intriguingly bizarre love triangle, for instance, is hinted at when Philippe takes it upon himself to deliver fabricated "messages" from one lover to the other. It escalates when Isabeau, in her hawk form, chooses to perch on Phillipe's wrist instead of Navarre's. Soon Philippe has the human Isabeau alone in a stable for some quality rufty tufty (get your mind out of the gutter, it's a dance). But the romantic angle which powers the film is eventually abandoned for standard-issue knights in armor swinging blades at each other. Maybe the writers didn't want to deal with polyamorous bestiality (and who can blame them, really).

Similarly, treacherous plot holes litter the narrative -- how much human personality and memory remains in Navarre and Isabeau's animal forms is inconsistent at best, and most worryingly, the fount and limits of the Bishop's powers aren't really established. I mean, if the curse gets lifted, great, but what's to stop him from just casting it again?

Everytime I look at you I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue
So, yeah. A masterpiece it's decidedly not, but Ladyhawke has its charms. The casting is inspired. Rutger Hauer's still channeling Blade Runner's Roy Baty, and so he turns what could have been an insipid romantic lead into an unstable weirdo: even in moments of contemplation or profound tenderness, you always get the sense that Navarre's just seconds away from squeezing out someone's eyeballs. Matthew Broderick's in full-on Dark Ages Ferris Bueller mode (his running commentary is delivered upwards to God instead of outwards to the audience, but the tenor is the same). Michelle Pfeiffer's Isabeau is alabaster perfection, pretty on the inside and the outside, and Leo McKern gets a fun turn as drunken priest Father Imperius. The human/animal transformations have just the right amount of cheese. And the soundtrack is so Eighties. Like, super Eighties. Alan Parsons. For real. Some people think this ruins the movie, but I think it's a selling point. If I wanted verisimilitude, I'd read a history book. Now shut up and give me the synth.

I am not a hawk! I am a... human being!
SCENE STEALER: Was any woman ever as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke? Her face is just... flabbergasting. Like, holy shit. I don't usually like to respond to the hard work an actress puts into a role with "OH MY GOD SHE'S SO PRETTY" but... oh my god, she's so pretty. Like, you kind of have to see it to believe it.

What's with the hair, though? It's more soccer mom than damsel in distress. Part of the Bishop's curse, perhaps -- explained in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor? Yeah, that must be it.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Warriors (1979)

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) is in every regard inferior to Walter Hill's true opus, Streets of Fire (1984). And yet Streets of Fire languishes forgotten while The Warriors has hot coals of hipster cred heaped upon its undeserving head. It's enough to drive a girl to drink. But my wine rack is empty, so I'm going to write a review instead.

Rock rock. Rockaway Beach.
The titular Warriors are a teenage street gang in a dystopic NYC overrun by teenage street gangs (in 1979, New York City basically was a textbook dytopia, so that's a little less creative than it sounds). When a gangland conference held in hostile territory goes awry, the Warriors are faced with the impossible-seeming task of returning to Coney Island, their claimed stomping grounds. Leader Swan (Michael Beck) indefatigably shepherds his charges through convenience stores and subways, evading or trouncing enemy gangs of hot lesbians and Little League players. Finally, as the sun rises on the Warriors stealing their own personal home base, we hear the cry that has gone down in cinematic history: villainous Luther (David Patrick Kelly) sing-songing "Warrrrrrriors, come out to plaaaaaaaay...." Surprisingly little comes of his invitation, and the movie's over ten minutes later.

The Warriors is not a bad movie. It has its selling points. The plot is endearingly asinine, the costumes approach A Clockwork Orange in their impractical, bizzaro charm, and Lynne Thigpen's red-hot, ice-cool disc jockey -- shot exclusively in extreme close-up -- is the most tantalizing pair of lips since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's also really cool to see so many PoCs in a film from the Seventies, although the fact that they're all playing delinquents makes it a little less progressive.

My real problem with this movie is it's the same thing over and over. Turf war, rinse, repeat. Also, if you have any feminist proclivities whatsoever, The Warriors will make multiple attempts to piss you off. I'm not complaining that there's not a strong enough female presence in the movie -- let's be realistic, the Bechtel Test exists for a reason -- but every time they encounter double X chromosomes, the Warriors respond by immediately attempting seduction, with as much or as little force as they judge necessary to the occasion. The one female character who is not merely a target of the Warriors' erotic ambitions, the tiresomely shrill Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), is lambasted by Swan for being insufficiently virginal. Listen, Warriors, I know that you're busy guys with a lot on your plate, but you might want to check that virgin/whore complex and sexual double standard!

Basically, The Warriors is an okay movie, but life is short and who has time for an okay movie? Massively overrated. Watch Streets of Fire instead.

Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still....
SCENE STEALER: Lynne Thigpen as the DJ/narrator who delivers her running commentary on the Warriors' journey in a low, flirty purr. Later, Lynne Thigpen was the Chief.

You ain't gettin' away this time, Carmen!!!
When I was three years old, the Chief was the woman I admired most in the world, aside from Anne of Green Gables and my mother. I don't want to get maudlin or anything, but Thigpen died quite tragically young almost exactly ten years ago, and... just... when I think of her chirping "this is the Chief, signing off"... is there... something in my eye? Also she was born on my birthday. December 22. Sagittarius/Capricorn cusp! Lynne Thigpen, I love you. : (

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Craft (1996)

I can't think of anything better than returning to a movie you loved as a kid and discovering it's still awesome now that you've grown up. That's exactly what happened when I re-watched The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) for probably the first time since I was an angst-ridden fourteen-year-old. Way to go, littler me, for your superior taste in cinema when everyone around you was knee-deep in inferior offerings from that weird mid-90s witchcraft craze! The Craft is a feminist horror parable, a grand guignol Breakfast Club -- three quarters girl power, one quarter black magic -- and a decade and change later, it's still wickedly good.

This comes right before the naked pillow fight.
Sarah (Robin Tunney) has what the 90s referred to as "issues." After a violent outburst, her parents relocate to sunny California so she can start anew. (Since this is exactly the setup for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I'd like to believe the two stories exist in the same universe and our starring coven was this close to a run-in with the chosen one.) Sarah picks the "bitches of Eastwick" for her new BFFs: Nancy (Fairuza Balk channeling Marilyn Manson), Bonnie (Neve Campbell channeling Hester Prynne), and Rochelle (Rachel True channeling someone's pet rock.) These girls are kneesock-deep in the dark arts, and after token hesitancy, Sarah's happy to help wreak revenge on their enemies: shallow blondes, callous jocks, and negligent parents soon pay for the pain they've inflicted on our heroines. Perhaps not unexpectedly, however, the girls' absolute power corrupts them absolutely, and Sarah is compelled to stop her out-of-control friends in an epic metaphysical catfight with Nancy. Snakes are thrown. Mirrors are broken. It's an Evanescence music video of a time. You can probably guess how it ends.

The Craft gets so much stuff right that it's just boggling. I've never seen a movie about teenagers where the teenagers acted so much like teenagers. The conversations, the moods, the preoccupations are pitch-perfect: when Bonnie sees the scars running the length of Sarah's wrists and murmurs, awed, "you even did it the right way" it's heartbreaking, and hilarious, and oh, so very high school. Present here are the awkward conversations with nosy bus drivers, the sleepovers that flip-flopped from giggles to tears, the bizarre, poignant affectations: Nancy, keeps a hangman's noose in her locker. I had a friend who did that. Maybe it was life imitating art, maybe it was art imitating life, but it rang true for me.

Unfortunately, The Craft's third act descends into creepy-crawly chaos, undermining the very thing that makes the rest of the movie so effective: would these girls, whose friendship was strong enough to catch the attention of the gods, whose power and purity turned them into avenging angels wreaking havoc in the hallways, turn on each other over something as boring as a boy? What a disappointing end to a film that starts out reveling in the twisted feminine other-ness of its antiheroines. Some producer somewhere is to blame. Still, the sour conclusion didn't stop me from watching, and re-watching, and re-watching this movie in my own salad days. The Craft is required viewing for black sheep of any age.

"Is this a DAGGER I see before me?"
SCENE STEALER: Fairuza Balk. Be still, my heart. Why wasn't Fairuza Balk in everything, ever? Let's take a short Fairuza Balk tour:

Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz, a movie which gave everyone, everywhere, nightmares.

Fairuza Balk in Almost Famous, a movie which gave everyone, everywhere, a heartwarming feeling.

Fairuza Balk.

Fairuza Balk!

There's a scene in The Craft where Nancy snuggles with a dead manatee and Fairuza Balk even manages to pull that off, almost.

Or maybe it was a narwhal. Whatever. Fairuza Balk for president!